Blast from the Jazz Past

There’s something special, enchanting and nostalgic about old-school jazz. Tunes from the Great American Songbook, the masterly compositions of Billy Strayhorn, George Gershwin and Cole Porter, a tight line-up comprising a grand piano, cornet, double bass and basic drum kit. Mainly gems from the 1930s and 1940s.

One saw all this earlier this week (Tuesday, November 27) at the Bal Gandharva Rang Mandir, Bandra, when pianist John DiMartino, cornetist-trumpeter Warren Vache, bassist Neal Miner and drummer Saurav Ghosh dazzled the audience for two hours. Organised by Jazz Addicts, it was a wonderful show, coming a few days after the three-day NCPA Jazz Festival.

Yet, there was something missing – a crowd. On the ground floor, only half the seats were occupied. Considering there had been adequate advertising, this seemed baffling. In contrast, legendary pianist Chick Corea’s concert at the same venue, at four times the ticket price, was near-packed without any advertising. Maybe, it’s the name which attracts, though Corea’s was indeed a lifetime experience.

To be sure, Mumbai has seen a few such concerts before, but they have been few and far between, mostly held at smaller venues like The Quarter and erstwhile Blue Frog. In an auditorium, one last remembers tenor saxophonist Houston Person and his quartet play many such standards at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, Nariman Point. Others have played favourites like Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, Strayhorn’s ‘Take The A Train’ and Joseph Kosma’s ‘Autumn Leaves’ but blended their set lists with later material too. Many vocalists have done these pieces.

At Tuesday’s show, the recurring theme was obviously the Strayhorn repertoire. DiMartino began with a short solo piano passage from his ‘Passion Flower’, after which he called upon the bassist and drummer for ‘Johnny Come Lately’. The ballad ‘Isfahan’, co-written with great pianist-bandleader Duke Ellington in the album ‘The Far East Suite’ was a treat.

The other Strayhorn gems were ‘Raincheck’ and the iconic ‘Take The A Train’, which was like a signature tune for Ellington and his supremely talented orchestra. On the Ellington front, the quartet played his son Mercer Ellington’s composition ‘Things Ain’t What They Ever Used To Be’, an uptempo piece with an Afro-Cuban twist where drummer Ghosh excelled. Vache’s solo was energetic.

The Strayhorn magic apart, there were single-tune representations from Cole Porter (‘Dream Dancing’), Edward Redding (‘The End Of A Love Affair’), Charlie Daniels (‘Sweet And Lovely’), Irving Berlin (‘How Deep Is The Ocean’) and British composer Jack Strachey (‘These Foolish Things’). Intricate solos, right rhythm section in each case. Miner played a dazzling independent bass solo.

And yes, just after the intermission, DiMartino announced, “For you in Mumbai, this is winter. For us Americans, this is like summertime.” Needless to say, he did a brilliant piano-driven version of Gershwin’s immortal ‘Summertime’.

The occasional dose of humour added to the evening’s charm, as Vache came up with quick one-liners. When DiMartino announced the composition ‘The End Of A Love Affair’, the cornetist quipped, “I am very familiar with that feeling.” When someone in the audience requested Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, he shot back, “You got the wrong band.”

In sum, it was some enchanted evening. Wish there are many more such concerts taking one back in time, and many more listeners to fill up the seats. It’s sad when so many miss out on such divine music.

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Narendra Kusnur is one of India’s best known music journalists. Born with a musical spoon (okay, doesn’t fit, but you get the drift), Naren, NK, Kusnur, Narender, Kaansen, Jahanpanna… however else many call him, is a late bloomer in music criticism. He was (is!) an aficionado first, and then strayed into writing on music. But in the last two decades, he has made up for most of what he didn’t do earlier. If ever there is an Ustad given for music writing, NK, would be among the first to receive one. Narendra Kusnur writes weekly on Xyngr. Don’t ask us when.